Maximizing the Impact of Student-Run Campus Consultancies

Illinois State has created a centralized, cross-disciplinary hub to coordinate students’ extracurricular projects in the community.
Maximizing the Impact of Student-Run Campus Consultancies

ONE STAPLE AT many of today’s business schools is the student consultancy project, in which cross-disciplinary student teams help real-world businesses solve pressing problems. But finding and coordinating a large number of such extracurricular projects can be a complex logistical challenge, says Jim Jones of the College of Business at Illinois State University in Normal—and it’s equally challenging to find and organize the right students for each job.

“Clients would bring us projects requiring skills in risk management, statistics, agribusiness, computer science, and remote sensing, and we would spend a lot of time asking people if they knew students who would be right for the project,” says Jones, who is the executive director of ISU’s Katie School of Insurance. “It was inefficient and time-consuming. We just wanted to have a central place for the campus community to direct faculty and students who were interested in doing innovative and cross-disciplinary client projects that impact organizations and society.”

To streamline the process of finding and coordinating team projects, the school created its Innovation Consulting Community (ICC). The ICC comprises a dedicated team of coordinators, as well as a virtual hub where faculty, students, and corporate partners can more easily submit, find, and join cross-disciplinary projects. Once students are assigned to project teams, they are provided with mentorship and online learning modules to prepare them for their team project experiences.

Currently, eight faculty and staff from across the university volunteer as ICC coordinators, including those from the College of Business as well as from the schools of applied science and technology, chemistry, and music. These volunteers also include Missy Nergard, the university’s director of sustainability. Together, they identify projects and assign students to teams. Many times, the coordinators hear about potential projects through alumni, advisory board members, and faculty and staff who learn of opportunities as they interact with community organizations.

The ICC team often identifies faculty with similar research or teaching interests to act as mentors. Mentors are asked to meet with their teams once or twice in the fall and once every two weeks in the spring; they also regularly communicate with their teams via an agreed-upon online platform. Each mentor provides feedback, supports client management, and helps teams clarify goals and overcome obstacles that could delay project completion.

DRAWING ATTENTION

With this central system in place, ICC coordinators find it easier to bring attention to available projects. Each year, the ICC posts projects on its online hub in late summer to early fall. It also promotes them via ads in the student newspaper, presentations to individual classes and student organizations, articles on college websites, and email blasts targeting specific student populations. “We encourage mentor faculty to recruit students from past or current semesters they feel would have interest,” says Peter Kaufman, an ICC coordinator and professor of marketing.

The ICC also plans to create a video highlighting the testimonials of students who have participated in the past, as a way to build awareness of the benefits of ICC participation.

When students read about projects that interest them, they can submit their résumés and project preferences online to ICC coordinators, who interview applicants and try to assign selected students to their first-choice projects. Projects without sufficient student interest will not be pursued. The ICC works with the university’s legal counsel to work out any confidentiality or nondisclosure agreements and to explain to students what they can document on their résumés and LinkedIn profiles.

Once selected, students must complete brief online pass/fail modules before meeting with their teams later in the semester to plan for their work in the spring. Projects that are complex or that inspire follow-up projects will continue the following year, with one team passing its work to a new set of students. Students make final presentations of their recommendations to their clients at a year-end symposium, where corporate clients also can identify students they might want to interview for full-time jobs post-graduation.

IMPACT ON PRACTICE

All ICC projects are unpaid and extracurricular, explains Kaufman. This means that the main motivator for students to work as consultants is the opportunity to work on projects that tackle social causes they care about or areas of business that they otherwise would not be able to access. They also appreciate that each team is “student-run rather than instructormanaged,” says Kaufman.

Some of the more unusual projects have been proposed by faculty members themselves. For instance, Joan Brehm, a professor of psychology, submitted a project related to her 20 years’ experience training dogs to find missing persons during search-and-rescue missions. Brehm’s project involved the McLean County Emergency Management Agency, where she volunteers as a K-9 handler. Brehm and ICC coordinator Nergard, who also is a K-9 handler, asked a student team to observe dog training sessions to determine whether trainers should redesign their current strategies with the dogs or follow a completely new protocol.

“We train them to detect odor X and perform behavior Y, and the dogs get rewarded. The dogs need to perform their alert in close proximity so we can direct forensics people where to look,” Brehm says in an ISU news story. “We want to get students who come in without preconceived notions and who already think outside of the box.”

For other projects, ICC student teams have assessed the market for electric mobility products; developed an app to map all university sustainability assets; and evaluated issues with autonomous vehicles, an important topic for local insurance companies. One team developed a social media promotion for a Major League Baseball team. After its completion, a team executive wrote to the ICC coordinators, noting that “the students not only provided our department with new and exciting ideas on how to target our millennial fan base, but also delivered concepts that were easy to act on—two of which have already been implemented this season.”

One sustainability-focused project asked a team to explore options for recycling glass material not routinely accepted by traditional recyclers; the organization that submitted the project wanted to avoid having to ship old glass great distances, and its leaders were so pleased with students’ recommendations that a follow-up project is underway, says Kaufman. Local construction companies are showing great interest in the results.

CROSS-CAMPUS ENGAGEMENT

While the ICC has no trouble finding intriguing projects for students to work on, it has found it challenging to sign up enough volunteer mentors every year. As one solution, ICC coordinators are planning to involve more local practitioners who are also ISU alumni. In addition, although clients currently provide the ICC with informal feedback about their experience working with student teams, the ICC plans to conduct more formal surveys to discover what clients do with students’ work after project completion.

Since its launch three years ago, the ICC has assigned 149 students from more than 20 disciplines to work on 34 projects. This centralized initiative has become a vital way to attract more talented students from across campus to work as consultants, as well as foster engagement with industry in a mutually beneficial way, says Ajay Samant, dean of the ISU College of Business. Samant adds, “We view this as a step forward on the path to the continuous improvement of business education.”

Read about the ICC to learn more about its current and past projects.

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